December 11, 2013

How sequestration played out

On the losing end: Congress kicks Carli Hopkins, 4, out of her Kentucky preschool.

BY David A. Fahrenthold
The Washington Post

OWENSBORO, Ky. — How, exactly, did Congress manage to kick 4-year-old Carli Hopkins out of her preschool?

click image to enlarge

Carli Hopkins, 4, rests her head on mother Rebecca Hopkins, who is telling a story as Carli’s sister Violet, father Jason Hopkins, bull-mastiff Coco and younger sister River listen. Carli was on the losing end of the sequestration list.

Photo for The Washington Post by Luke Sharrett

Carli asked after it happened. Her mother didn’t try to explain. The child was still too young to learn about politicians.

“Some kids get to go to school all the time. And some kids get to stay home with Mom,” Rebecca Hopkins told her. “And you are one of those kids.”

The real answer was the “sequester,” the $85 billion budget cut that Washington lawmakers designed to be such a stupid idea it could never come true.

Then, of course, it came true.

Now — as Congress considers a deal that would end this odd experiment in blind budget-cutting — it is possible to stand back and explain how it actually worked.

The cuts were supposed to cause equal pain across a broad spectrum of Washington programs. They didn’t. Lawmakers had declined to choose austerity’s winners and losers. But they were chosen anyway by a long national scramble in which programs from Head Start to the Pentagon sought to wriggle out of their share of the cuts.

The winners — those with stored-up cash to spend or powerful friends to help — avoided painful reductions in the sequester’s first year.


The losers did not. And this year, as the cuts trickled down from Washington to a preschool classroom in Kentucky, Carli Hopkins was at the end of a long line of losers.

Congress “didn’t make the hard choices. . . . They avoided the hard choices at all costs,” said Peggy Grant, director of the Head Start preschool program, who was forced to kick Carli out. “And we had to make the hard choices, again and again.”

Sequestration was intended as an across-the-board budget cut, reducing spending on national defense and non-defense programs. It was triggered after a special “supercommittee” — and then Congress — was unable to agree on a better plan to reduce the federal deficit.

So, after two years of intense fighting about austerity, the nation’s harshest spending cuts were adopted essentially by accident.

Congress is considering a deal that would replace these across-the-board cuts with something smaller. And, it is hoped, smarter.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have agreed on a plan that would eliminate about $45 billion of the planned cuts for the current fiscal year.

If this is the sequester’s end, its epitaph will be: This was a budget cut that could be beaten.

Today, a survey of 48 specific forecasts, made by federal agencies before the cuts took effect, shows that at least 27 of those predictions did not come true. There were no furloughs of FBI agents and prison guards. Furloughs of air-traffic controllers were canceled after a few days of flight delays.

But, in other cases, the reductions turned out to be as bad as projected: At least 12 predictions about the sequester’s impact came true. There were 700 fewer grants for research scientists. And, at Head Start, officials had to eliminate services for 57,000 children, including Carli Hopkins.

How did those groups lose, while so many others found a way out?

For Carli, the answer starts with bad luck. And a list.

The list was created by the 2011 law that laid out sequester’s ground rules. It decreed which programs would be exempt from the cuts, if they ever came. The list was largely cribbed from a 1985 law, and it exempted a number of programs that help low-income families: Medicaid, food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Head Start helps the same kind of people. But it was not on the list.

(Continued on page 2)

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